I discovered Raymond Carver‘s collection of short stories, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, whilst watching the film Stuck In Love which followed a family of writers.
The main character had mentioned this book to be his favourite, and wondering what the fuss was all about I decided to read the book myself.
This powerful collection of stories, is set in the mid-West among the lonely men and women who drink, fish and play cards to ease the passing of time and was the first by Raymond Carver to be published in the UK. With its spare, colloquial narration and razor-sharp sense of how people really communicate, the collection was to become one of the most influential literary works of the 1980s.
When I first started reading this book, I found the stories to be a little unfinished, a little bare. To me, the stories were only snippets of broken relationships, lonely people and drinking. With its beautiful title, I expected love stories with passion and excitement but found it was nothing like that at all.
It wasn’t until I was halfway through the stories that I began to see something else; the short stories only compelled me to read further and I thought more about the characters and the actual meaning of the stories, both individually and collectively.
I realised that although each story was short, and unique in their own way, each of them shared the same inner message: that the nature of love is elusive.
Throughout What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the characters from the different stories fail despite their best efforts to define the meaning of love.
For example, Mel tries to pinpoint its meaning, but his stories never build up to any coherent conclusion. When he promises that he’ll tell everyone exactly what it is, he digresses into a muddle meditation about how strange it is that people have loved more than one person.
Other characters believe that they know what love is, but they never really provide a clear definition or explain why they’re so certain in their convictions. They merely demonstrate their love for each other by blushing and holding hands, but these actions simply support the mystery of love rather than unmask it.
In the end, no one can really explain love, or put a definition to it. And I guess that’s exactly the point that Raymond Carver is trying to show: that love is elusive; it’s impossible to put into words. That the sheer fact that we can’t explain it is what gives it it’s element of mystery and wonder.
To brand love with a definition take away the part of us that aches to find it. To know that there’s something that reaches so far into our hearts that it seems endless and makes us feel infinite, is what we spend most of our lives searching for. It’s the closest thing that we have to magic.
The last lines of the short story titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, reads:
“I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” – Raymond Carver
This to me, perfectly sums up the elusiveness of love. It was after the characters were talking about love and none could define it. They just sat there thinking about it, thinking everything over.
The idea that you can sit for hours in silence just thinking about love, going into the depth of its wonder only adds to its mystery. It can’t be defined, and I think that we know that when we try to pinpoint its definition, we know that if we try to, we’ll come up up short, but the challenge is there. To be the one that manages to explain through language what love is, we try to do it. And when we can’t we don’t feel like we failed, but the secret sweet satisfaction that in the bottom of our hearts, we were right.
Love cannot be defined. But even if it could, would we want to define it? Or keep that mystery and elusiveness alive?